Portrait of the Young Artist as an Old Man

BY I. KhiderPublished Nov 17, 2016

Cartoonist Gregory "Seth" Gallant, known for his oft-autobiographical underground comic Palookaville, has released his choicest sketchbook drawings in one volume entitled Vernacular Drawings. Seth comes from a community of Toronto-based comic book artists like Joe Matt (Peep Show) and Chester Brown (Yummy Fur, The Playboy), who regularly use their own lives as raw material for stories. In Palookaville's serialised story-lines, Seth has depicted himself attached to the past, particularly the first half of the 20th century, where he perceives the quality of life, at least aesthetically, to have been better.

Meeting to discuss Vernacular Drawings, Seth appears just as he depicts himself — dressed like 1940s film extra, with a classically cut suit, shirt, tie and of course a fedora. "Like any artist, a sketchbook is just something to draw in for pleasure. At no point when I was working on the book — there are six sketchbooks really — did I have plans to publish this material. Only for the last year or two have I thought about making a collection of it. So much I do isn't done for the pure pleasure of drawing. Even my comic book isn't a great pleasure to draw. It's work. You have to bend your drawing to tell the story. The sketchbook is the only place where I draw just for fun. There is no real context to them beyond the fact that they're things I'm interested in."

More than just casual drawings, one can tell that substantial time and care went into these works. Images of early jazz legends, landscape growth, old buildings and even successful real-estate salesmen of the past, retain a breathtaking level of serenity and atmosphere. Apart from Seth's refined style, these images share other threads of commonality.

"Almost 90 percent were culled from old sources, old magazines, books, girlie magazines, comic books. My house and studio are built with just paper ephemera. There's always stuff coming and going. Whatever would be at the top of the pile of interest — I would pull out an old newspaper and just be doodling from the photographs. Generally when I'm drawing, I'm looking for a certain level of spontaneity."

Each day, before embarking on his freelance commercial illustrations for the likes of The Globe and Mail and Time or drawings for Palookaville, Seth works in his sketchbooks, not only for pleasure but to hone his skills as an artist. It's an opportunity to explore a romantised past to which he feels a particular kinship. "Really what it boils down to is that I think things are a lot uglier nowadays. You could argue about social conditions but I think it's unarguable that if you look at the quality of manufacturing and aesthetics of 1910 and compare it to 2001, things have gotten worse. I have an aesthetic yearning for that period. I find everything there appealing and therefore more fun for me to draw. It's just personal taste. Some artists only draw picture of cute girls or rock and roll stars, because that's their interest. I find that the aesthetics of the first part of the 20th century so appealing that almost anything from that time period would be wonderful for me to draw."

Vernacular Drawings finds Seth at his most unencumbered. The love for what he does is evident from his compulsion to draw, the ever-present set of HB pencils he keeps in his shirt pocket and most importantly, the end result of his work. Yet in speaking to Seth, one gets a sense of melancholy from a man who's fettered to a heavily idealised past. "I was just saying to my other cartoonist friends that I could just put the works in a box when I finish. In many ways I'm just putting out the work because I have to do it. I'm trying to create an object that I want in the world. Unfortunately, because I created it, it's ruined it for me. There's a story, a book that you want to read, you can see it in your mind and you just have to make it exist."

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